Many world leaders, dismayed by four years of Donald Trump, are hoping that President-elect Joe Biden will return to an American foreign policy that is more pragmatic and balanced, less fickle and pettily punitive. One region crying out for an urgent recalibration in the US approach is the Persian Gulf. Thanks to an emerging European initiative to help bring a modicum of calm to the tense region, Biden will have the opportunity to do a lot of good early in his term without having to invest too much political capital.
Ever since the 1979 Iranian revolution, tensions between Iran and the United States, and between Iran and its Arab neighbors, have given rise to violent conflict – whether fought directly, as during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, or by proxy, as in Iraq, Syria and Yemen today. The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and its “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran have made an already volatile region even more dangerous. Events of the past 18 months, in particular, have shown the escalatory potential of small-scale confrontations. Last year’s attacks on Gulf shipping routes and oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia, allegedly at the hands of Iran or its proxies; Iran’s shooting down of a US surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz; the US killing of Iran’s top military commander, in January; Iran’s retaliatory missile strikes against Iraqi army bases housing US troops; and the assassination in late November of a senior Iranian nuclear scientist, allegedly at the hands of Israeli agents – any one of these incidents could have spun out of control, triggering a war that no one wants.
The weeks leading up to Biden’s inauguration on 20 January may be particularly perilous, as they present an opportunity for the Trump administration and Israel to escalate tensions in a way that would vastly complicate Biden’s efforts to return the relationship with Iran to a more stable footing. As a first step to pulling back from the brink with Iran, the Biden administration is likely to prioritize finding a way for the US to return to the nuclear deal –officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA – and for Iran to return to full compliance. After Trump withdrew from the agreement and reimposed devastating economic sanctions, Iran progressively began to violate aspects of the deal. In response to the Iranian nuclear scientist killing, the Iranian parliament passed a bill calling for the immediate resumption of enrichment to 20%, a critical threshold that would allow Iran to more quickly produce weapons-grade fuel.
If the nuclear deal has survived nonetheless, it is because Tehran made clear that these steps are reversible, and that it would be prepared to reverse them if the US were to lift its sanctions. The JCPOA’s other signatories – Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the European Union – have also stuck by it despite their evident distress at the US withdrawal and Iran’s incremental breaches. The Biden administration’s top priority in the Middle East next year will be to repair the damage done to the nuclear deal and reset the uneasy US relationship with Iran. It won’t be easy, but if Biden is successful, it will be a major step toward halting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East and lowering the temperature in the region. At the same time, lifting sanctions and resuming negotiations with Tehran will not automatically erase four decades of enmity, nor would canceling “maximum pressure” ensure a major reduction in tensions between Iran and America’s regional allies. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel, in particular, will hardly be reassured by a US approach to Iran that they fear will increase their rival’s power and influence. Part of the reason the UAE and Israel recently agreed to normalize relations is their desire to forge a common front against Iran.
What is needed most urgently to reduce the heat is for Iran and Saudi Arabia, along with the other Gulf states, to open new channels of communication and to start talking to each other directly, at various levels of political, military and intelligence leadership. From Washington’s perspective, the timing for such dialogue could be opportune. There is no love lost for Iran in the incoming Biden administration or in Congress, given Tehran’s violent meddling in the Syrian and Yemeni wars. But US officials are also increasingly wary of Saudi Arabia, which started a destructive and unwinnable war in Yemen, brutally murdered the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and escalated a dispute with fellow Gulf Cooperation Council member Qatar, also an important American ally. A US seeking a more balanced approach to the Middle East would want to find a workable accommodation with Iran, while also reining in Saudi leaders who are prone to ill-considered and destructive adventurism. What better way to deal with both problems simultaneously than by nudging them toward a mutual dialogue that could serve to stabilize a strategically and economically important part of the world? The talks would also be an opportunity to address head-on a common complaint about the JCPOA: that it ignored Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region.
Given the many challenges on his plate, however, Biden may not have the bandwidth to devote substantial energy and resources to this effort, at least during his first year in office. He could instead entrust the role of go-between in the Middle East to US allies in Europe, which have been strategizing for months about how they could work together most effectively toward this diplomatic objective. A number of informal discussions have already taken place in European capitals, in some cases also involving NGOs and think tanks that have long pursued “Track II” dialogues, which don’t involve current government officials, in the Middle East. My organization, the International Crisis Group, has also taken part in these discussions. European governments realize they cannot move forward in any substantive way without at least an implicit green light from Washington. They knew they would never receive such a signal from the Trump administration, given its single-minded focus on bringing Iran to its knees. But now, they rightly believe the Biden administration would be more likely to give their diplomatic efforts a chance.
The process would begin with a core group of European governments, and possibly others with a stake in the stability of the Middle East, laying the groundwork for a Gulf-based dialogue by exploring the receptiveness toward such a move in Washington, Tehran, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Eventually, Gulf states and Iran would need to take ownership of the process, but they may require nudges, reassurances and possibly guarantees from external actors with a stake in the region – the United States foremost among them – even if the Biden administration does not take the lead. This could take the form of US officials observing the dialogue, while working the corridors to show their allies that Washington is actively backing the effort. It could also include concrete and material incentives for constructive participation. Separately, the Biden administration would have to find ways to neutralize opposition from Israel’s right-wing government to reducing the threat from Iran through diplomacy, rather than coercion.
The idea for a Europe-mediated Gulf dialogue has been around for a long time, but the right opportunity to jumpstart it had not presented itself until now. Tensions in the region are at an all-time high, and the incoming US president is likely to be both more even-handed and more favorably inclined to a diplomacy-focused approach than his predecessor. When European governments come knocking early next year to seek the new administration’s help, all Biden would need to do is say, “Go ahead, give it a try. The United States has your back.” It could be a quick and easy foreign policy win for an administration keen to have one after a difficult presidential transition.
‚How Biden Can Score a Diplomatic Win in the Gulf, With an Assist From Europe‘ – Op-Ed by Joost Hiltermann – International Crisis Group / ICG.